Speed 26 January 2012

The latest Edelman Trust Barometer (which is itself, no doubt, utterly trustworthy) has been doing the rounds this week. Amongst its highlights is the statistic that the UK public’s trust in politicians is pretty much at rock bottom – and trust in business leaders fares little better.

There were other points about us not trusting the media very much, which given the obvious commercially-sensitive slants most media have put on the information – Huff Post says lack of trust in established media is a social media opening, The Guardian says trust in the media has increased – were surely a foregone conclusion anyway. When the media (new and old) spins something about apparent lack of trust in media, my eyeballs roll. 

Edelman has clearly long been onto a good thing with the Trust Barometer, but behind the headlines squats the whole issue of not just the fact (well, the fact according to a representative sample of people asked to give their opinions) that trust in business leaders and politicians is at a low ebb, but what can be done to improve it.

Of course the obvious points, mostly already made in coverage of the survey, are that transparency must reign and social media engagement to forge direct relationships with the public is something to cling to. But there are deeper issues to probe here.

Trust may be at the forefront of the story, but trust can’t begained without belief. And while the statistics have editorial appeal given the current state of the country and its economy, they do beg the question of whether Britons have ever trusted business leaders and politicians. We may need them, we may favour them over other alternatives, but we don’t necessarily trust them because we (probably) won’t ever really believe them – because they have a personal and commercial/governmental agenda to pursue. Their intentions are not typically seen as pure, so what comes out of their mouths and the way in which they behave will always be perceived with that in mind.

Sometimes I don’t completely trust my friends or those around me. That’s not a character flaw per se, but a consequence of me knowing that the thinly-veiled reason for their question, comment or behaviour may be something like giving me the ‘opportunity’ of some more work to do, or convincing me that it really is my round at the pub.

I doubt whether merchants in medieval times or past kings were trusted much by the public, and many may have been despised. We didn’t know about trust levels back then because we didn’t try to measure them scientifically, but I doubt a survey of the Holy Land about whether the local populace thought Herod was a nice chap would have given us fascinating and hitherto unknown insight. 

My point here is that while the powers that be do appear to be doing a worsening job of engendering trust in their audiences, that in itself is nothing new. Scepticism has always existed, and nowhere has it been more at home than in Britain. What communciators should be focussing on is how to make the truth believed.

A changed media landscape means the truth will out. So spinning it and trying to control media agendas won’t work anymore, and the public probably didn’t trust you any more even when you could do that.

These days your work to build trust must centre on a communications strategy that seeks to build reputation in layers over time, believably. To use Alastair Campbell’s analogy from the event Speed ran last week, it’s about landing dots on a blank page.

The difference is that – providing you tell the truth – the im
mediacy and transparency of digital media can be combined with the reach and calibre of conventional media to join those dots faster. No one media type will create belief, it needs to be built over time, using all appropriate media outlets in the right combination, with the right content, rooted in an intimate understanding of the audience. That’s how PR can best help to improve overall levels of trust.

It’s PR’s (public relations, not media relations) central challenge in modernising, and it will take time, trust me.